Friday, October 29, 2010

Sabermath strikes again -- Should Rangers start Borbon in center? Uh, yes, if they're playing for two tenths of a run tomorrow night...

I’m not at war with the Saber mathematicians. Really, I’m not. I have a couple of friends who would like for me to be at war with them. The fact is, I like numbers, too. And I'm not much on motivational speeches, momentum, or the value of heart. Well... the value of heart beyond a point.

So, please, I’m not at war with baseball math. In fact, I’m fascinated by it. One reason is baseball has always seemed to me to be a mathematical game. This is one of its beauties. It is so difficult and it generates so many events in a season or a career that it tends to be a perfect illustration of the natural curve.

In my math, this means a player has a certain set of skills. The game will reveal those skills. The player may play way above or way below them one year, or in one stretch, but he will eventually settle back in at his spot on the curve. When I say baseball reveals that spot, I mean it. It’s why, as a player, you can love the game and hate the game at the same time. The game leaves you no where to hide.

You can certainly get better. You can certainly try harder. But, ultimately, baseball will tell you the limits of the particular body your parents gave you. It will tell you the limits of your intellect. It will tell you the limits of your will. It will reveal you in a way nothing else can.

Baseball needs numbers and the people who generate them. The sport is too often laden with nostalgia, myth, pathos. It is too often about heart and want to. I love heart and want to, but you have to understand both only matter within the range of skills and intellect you have been given by fate. All you have to do is 'want to' hit a home run to guarantee a pop up.

Ok, before I get deeper into this, let me push a few buttons.

I like numbers, but I also distrust numbers. I have some academic experience with numbers. I know they can sometimes only tell you something silly. I love it when academics use numbers to tell you something you already know. I don’t see anything wrong with asking about numbers.

My students argue the numbers are objective. They may be MORE objective, but they are not objective. Baseball numbers are way beyond counting at bats and hits. They’re as complicated as the directions for throwing a back-door slider.

So, I ask, WAR, what is it good for?

I’m still waiting for an answer. If Tim Lincecum is only worth four more games a year to the Giants than, say Tony Pena, Jr., from Triple A Fresno, why pay him to pitch in the majors?

While we wait for those numbers, let’s look at the latest work of Sabermagician Dan Rosenheck in the New York Times this morning. His suggestion for the Rangers is to start Julio Barbon in center, move Hamilton to left and Cruz to right. When he talks about speed and arm strength he begins to make some sense. The truth is, you don’t need John Dewan’s Fielding Bible to see SOME of the logic in such a move, especially if you link it to the different tendencies of the Game 3 starting pitcher.

Then, however, he is forced to account for hitting, and here he admits the scheme has some weaknesses because right now Borbon couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.

Here, friends is the money (ball) quote: “…the Rangers would allow about 0.19 fewer runs per nine innings with an outfield of Hamilton in left, Borbon in center and Cruz in right than they would with Cruz in left, Hamilton in center and Francoeur in right.”

0.19 runs is predicated on the Ultimate Zone Rating conclusion that Borbon “saved nine runs with his glove in 1,100 innings this year.” Now that number might be meaningful across the next 1,100 innings. But, pray tell, how the hell could it have any meaning across the nine innings the Rangers will play tomorrow?

And, even if it did, what in the world difference would the tendency to prevent two-tenths of one run mean tomorrow?

I’m listening? And, for the sake of the Texas Rangers, I hope Ron Washington is not.


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